pet sematary remake directors interview

Pet Sematary lives again, in the hands of directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer. The duo who helmed the indie horror flick Starry Eyes are now bringing Stephen King‘s scariest book to life, and they’re not pulling their punches. During a Pet Sematary set visit in Montreal last year, Kölsch and Widmyer talked about the new movie’s faithfulness to the book, whether or not we might see some Stephen King easter eggs, and more. 

One hot, buggy day on the Pet Sematary set, directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer emerge from a peeling, run-down house serving as the residence of Jud Crandall (John Lithgow), and meet us in the yard. Both filmmakers look a bit exhausted, yet come alive when speaking about the film. Widmyer is the more talkative of the two by far, rattling off info about the production while a cigarette burns in his hand. Kölsch sits by his side with a thoughtful look on his face, waiting to interject.

“We’re lucky that It did as well as it did, because now we’re in another Stephen King renaissance and we shouldn’t blow it,” Widmyer says. “We should be making great movies out of this material, because the material warrants it. [Pet Sematary] is a very seminal book, it’s very different from [King’s] other books. [And] our approach to the material is very mature, very grounded, and we really understood the material.”

And what of that material? How true is this Pet Sematary hewing to King’s novel, as opposed to the 1989 film adaptation?

“There were a lot of things in the book that we were always big fans of or things that didn’t even make it into the original movie that we wanted to do,” Kölsch says. “And we worked hard to get those into the script. That has been our approach, to be faithful to the book. But the best remakes are the things that stay faithful to the essence, not necessarily every single thing that happens. We’re making some changes, or doing some decisions based on the kind of things that we think would be really cool, but it’s all within the essence and the spirit of the original source material.”

This is incredibly promising to hear. Based on the footage we see being shot today, it’s clear that this Pet Sematary has nailed down the ever-present dread of King’s novel. Kölsch and Widmyer also understand that there’s more to Stephen King that just horror. What makes King’s work so immortal and universal is the way he creates his characters, making them seem fully formed. And the way he’s able to tap into realistic themes and graft them onto a fantastical scenario.

“The supernatural element is a tool to tell [the] story,” Widmyer says. “The same way The Shining is really about addiction because Stephen King was going through addiction at that time, and his use of the father and writer’s block and claustrophobia and stuff. It’s not about an evil hotel, you know? You bring the horror in with you, and that’s really what this story is too. So we love that stuff.”

Widmyer adds later: “This is literary horror. This isn’t just concept and shlock. This could be something more. I think we’re excited to try to tell…an elevated, really smart, mature version.”

Knowing that the filmmakers have a firm grasp on the down-to-earth dramatic elements of the film is great – but what about the supernatural? The unexplainable? The things that go bump in the night? One thing is for sure: the special effects bringing these things to life will be practical.

“It’s as practical as we could get it,” Widmyer says. “That was one of our first pitches – we had to go fully practical, you know?”

So one can assume that probably means no CGI Church the cat, right?

“No CGI cats,” confirms Widmyer. “And it’s a nightmare, I don’t know why we said yes, but we’re working with real cats…a trainer with like six different cats. And there’s some days we wake up and we’re like, what the hell were we thinking? You know, it’s hard to get a cat to act. But a CGI cat would look like crap.”

pet sematary remake directors

One of the most terrifying elements of the 1989 film – the thing that still has the power to give audiences the creeps – is Zelda, the dead sister of Rachel Creed, who haunts her to this day. Andrew Hubatsek played Zelda in the ‘89 film, and the ghoulish makeup used on the actor was suitably horrifying.

But it wasn’t exactly true to King’s work. For one thing, Hubatsek was clearly an adult, and the Zelda in King’s novel is a child when she dies. And that’s the approach the 2019 film is taking, going so far as to cast 13-year-old actress Alyssa Brooke Levine in the part. At first this might seem too much of a departure from the 1989 film to work, but the way the filmmakers explain things make it sound even more unsettling.

“[Zelda is] an 11- or 10-year-old girl with a debilitating disease in bed,” Widmyer says. “So if you look at the psychology of the Zelda situation – it’s a family that was dealing with a horrible situation that had a daughter that they couldn’t fix, that was wasting away up in their bedroom, and they had a younger daughter [Rachel] who was in charge of basically like going in and taking care of her and being there as she disintegrated. That in itself is pretty horrific.”

Widmyer also points out that Zelda wasn’t in the new film’s script until they joined the project, and that they both wanted the character, and felt an urge to make her even scarier. “We came along and said you have to have Zelda. And then we just sort of accepted the challenge and said we gotta try to do something on our own and do something that honors the book but is our own thing, which is just as scary if not scarier than they did in the first one.”

A Pet Sematary movie without Zelda would be utterly strange, so we can all be thankful the character has made it into the film. And what else has made it into the film along with her? With the Stephen King renaissance in full bloom, can we expect to catch King-inspired Easter eggs peppered throughout the film, the way they were in the Hulu series Castle Rock?

“The art department has had a blast on this one,” Kölsch informs us. “They almost went too far, where they were showing us a sign that was like D. Torrance Realty [in reference to Danny Torrance, the kid from The Shining], and we’re like, no. Because it can’t be that. It’s not like Danny Torrance went and opened up a realtor company in Ludlow, Maine.”

“They almost got too excited,” Widmyer confirms, “where we were like, we’re going to have Easter eggs, but they have to be accurate and they have to be organic. So we actually turned down a lot of Easter eggs, but we put in a lot of good ones that you’re going to have to find…It’s stuff that would be in the world. That’s in the book. Smaller things that are happening in the background of our world or in the subtext of conversations.”

“Like, Carrie‘s not going to show up,” Kölsch wryly adds.

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This is an excerpt from our larger Pet Sematary set visit report, which you can read herePet Sematary opens April 5, 2019.

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